Early in the nineteenth century, the mountain men emerged as a small but distinctive group whose knowledge and experience of the trans-Mississippi West extended the national consciousness to continental dimensions. Though Lewis and Clark blazed a narrow corridor of geographical reality, the West remained largely terra incognita until trappers and traders--Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jedediah Smith--opened paths through the snow-choked mountain wilderness. They opened the way west to Fremont and played a major role in the pivotal years of 1845-1848 when Texas was annexed, the Oregon question was decided, and the Mexican War ended with the Southwest and California in American hands, the Pacific Ocean becoming our western boundary.
From the days of Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s to the close of the Mexican War, the beginning of the Gold Rush and the planning of a railway to California, the trans-Mississippi West has been the province of the mountain men. The sagas of Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and dozens of others are replete with courage and even altruism as well as meanness and incompetence. Hazarding scalpings and worse from the tribes whose lands they violated, they are among the heroes, sometimes the villains, of Utley's epic, which needs all its good maps to keep the lines of narrative in focus. Much of the tale is compelling and authoritative, as would be expected from the former chief historian of the National Park Service and author of The Last Days of the Sioux Nation. Some readers may be troubled, however, by the chauvinist language about territories that would be swept up into the American nation in fulfillment of its "continental destiny." Utley's vanguard, creating empire as by-products of commerce, mostly beaver trappers and buffalo hunters motivated by money yet magnetized by the country, are described in terms that hardly suggest their depredations and cruelty. For all its graphic rawness, the sweeping story presented here lacks balance. Illustrations.